Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Exceeding Beauty of Creation,_end_19_-early_20_c.,_private_coll.%29.jpeg

"And God saw everything, which He made, and behold! it was beautiful exceedingly."--Gen 1:31

Tradition lends a new dimension to the Faith which can easily be missed.  Think, for example, of the account of creation in Genesis, in which each day it is repeated: "And God saw, that it was good."  A quick comparison of English Bible translations shows how ubiquitous the use of the word "good" is in these passages, with only one rebel saying "He was pleased" instead.  Even the Vulgate speaks of how God's creation is "bona."  These all translate well the Hebrew טוב, "pleasing, good, agreeable."  Yet Tradition gives us a rich nuance which should not be avoided.

The first line of this post is a translation from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Scriptures, according to tradition a miraculous translation, of which St. Augustine said, "the same Spirit that was in the prophets when they spoke was present also in the seventy men when they translated them."  It is the text quoted in the New Testament, and it is a text that is an essential part of the Church's Tradition.  Thus from it we can gain nuances or details not present in the Hebrew, and such is this nuance.

When the Lord looks upon His creation in the Septuagint, He does not merely see it as "good," but as "beautiful."  Καλόν (kalon) is the word used, a word that makes up the title of the Philokalia, the great collection of writings of the Fathers named "Love of the Beautiful."  God did not merely create the world in a good way, in a way that is "pleasing" and "agreeable."  He made the world more than this: He made it beautiful.

When the whole world fell through man's sin, it became ugly.  St. Gregory of Nyssa described our fallen human nature as "smeared" or "smudged," being unable to reflect the beautiful image of God we originally had in fullness.  During this time of the Fast, we remember our sin, how we now wear the garments of skin, as the Fathers spoke of it, our "garment that is defiled and shamefully blood-stained by a life of passion and self-indulgence," as St. Andrew of Crete wrote.  "By passions, I have discolored the first beauty of the image, O Savior," as his Great Canon puts it so pointedly.  So great the sin of man, that what was once "beautiful exceedingly" is now wallowing in filth like the Prodigal Son!

Maybe it is for this that the Church bids us read the account of creation these first three days of the Fast, in order to remind us of the exceeding beauty with which God created us, the beauty whose loss we will recall in the coming days' readings.  Yet the Gospel, the Good News, is that God did not leave us in our ugliness: for the Lord came to give men life in abundance by cleansing them with water and the Word, leaving them without spot or blemish or stain, white as wool and snow.  The beauty of the glory to which Christ grants access is greater than that which we first received from the Lord's hands.  "Where sin abounds, grace hyperabounds," and where ugliness abounds, beauty hyperabounds.  Through the Lord's grace and our partaking in His nature, what was originally beautiful, even beautiful exceedingly, will become even more exceedingly beautiful, beautiful beyond measure, for eye has not seen and ear has not heard the beauty that awaits us in Heaven, a beauty that we can begin to partake of even on earth.

In these days of the Fast, let us lament the exceeding beauty creation has lost, but let us implore the Lord that we may partake in the still more exceeding beauty He shall bestow upon those who love Him, the beauty of His Paschal light to which we are processing.  Let us lament with hope, for Christ has come to raise up the beautiful likeness that has fallen.

Nota Bene: The quote from St. Augustine is from De Civitate Dei, Book XVIII, Chapter 43, translated by R. W. Dyson as The City of God against the Pagans, published by Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1998).  The quotes from the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete are from the portion of the Second Ode read on Tuesday of the 1st Week of the Great Fast, as found in the Publican's Prayer Book, published by Sophia Press (Boston, MA, 2008).  The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon was consulted for understanding all the meanings of the Hebrew טןנ.


  1. Thank you for this post. Although I am a Latin Rite Catholic and attend the Extraordinary Form almost exclusively, in recent years I am drawn toward our Eastern Rites. The liturgies and prayers are quiet powerful, and right now I am puttering around with the Fathers of the Church, with special interest in those of the East. What started me on all this some years ago were the compositions of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff written for the Russian Orthodox Church, and reading the translations of the prayers. I'll be checking out some of the blogs on your sidebar because I just can't get enough of everything related to the Church in general and our early Fathers. Thanks for visiting my site so that I could find you.

    1. Thank you for visiting me as well! I'm joyful that you are aware of both lungs of the Church. If you are interested in music from the East, two great contemporary works are the Kanon Pokajanen [the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in Church Slavonic] by Estonian Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt and the Akathist of Thanksgiving [a hymn written by a Russian priest who died in a prison camp in 1940] by the late John Tavener, a Greek Orthodox composer from England.

      If you have any questions about the East, please don't hesitate to ask, as I love to teach others about the Faith in all its aspects. Glory to Jesus Christ! [And the Byzantine response is "Glory forever!"]